The Big East conference schedule is a journey over treacherous winter roads, a long trip in which a team can be cruising along one moment and then an unseen patch of black ice sends it spinning into the guardrail.
It's nothing new, and no team reaches the end of the season without a flat tire or a cracked windshield along the way. Villanova suffered a second straight fender bender on Saturday, losing, 69-66, to Georgetown in a game that honestly shouldn't have been that close.
"We've fallen into some bad habits," coach Jay Wright said. "In this league . . . you pay for that."
After a road win over Syracuse, which seemed meaningful at the time, the Wildcats have now lost to Providence and Georgetown in succession. Wright said the Syracuse win was the result of getting away with taking bad shots, and the two losses that followed were because you can't get away with that very often.
"This is just life in the Big East," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "I think [Pitt coach] Jamie Dixon said it recently, that in the first part of the season the Big East beats up on the rest of the country. Then we start conference play and beat each other up. Start losing a few games and people say, 'What's wrong with this team and that team?' It's just life in the Big East."
Life is worthwhile if people say nice things about you at the end, and this Villanova team won't be judged on a stretch of loose basketball in January but by the eulogies delivered in March and, perhaps, April.
"Everybody on the team is a year older. They're not fighting [the learning process]. They listen. They'll do it," Wright said. "That's why I'm confident this team is going to get better."
"I think we're ahead of pace compared to last year's team, even though that team might have had a better record at this point. We're closer to being the Villanova basketball team we want to be, but we're definitely not there yet."
Wright is playing three seniors and five sophomores in his regular rotation this season, and it is fair to say that more is expected of this team than last season's version, which had to rely too heavily on freshmen.
But it still remains to be seen if this group can develop the toughness and intensity to rise to the level of a 2009-10 team that proved to be a scrappy overachiever. The Wildcats got knocked out early in the Big East tournament a year ago, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but 25-8 was a pretty good accomplishment for that group.
Against Georgetown on Saturday, the Wildcats gave up too many baskets in the paint, particularly in the first half, and had a troubling inability to come up with loose balls that could have gone either way. One of the hallmarks of the recent Villanova teams has been their ability to win those 50-50 balls, and, as with some other things, you wonder just how much Scottie Reynolds meant to those teams.
"We've talked about [getting loose balls]. Each year the team is different and I don't know if this team has that personality yet," Wright said. "We've got to get it . . . and that's one of the areas."
There's no question Villanova lost some toughness when it lost Reynolds and Reggie Redding, but that quality is made, not born, and it is usually made during these sometimes-disappointing stretches in league play. The team will either decide to go all in - for loose balls, for the extra passes, for taking the tough fouls - or it won't. Wright's job is to make sure it does.
He has steepened the learning curve now, lecturing them that the Syracuse game was fool's gold panned from a river of bad shots. The pace has to increase because only 10 games are left before the conference tournament, including four against top 20 teams.
In a month, this team could be where it is supposed to be, a dangerous opponent in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments and a talent capable of a significant run if the ball chooses to bounce that way.
For that to happen, Corey Stokes has to regain his shooting touch, Antonio Pena has to continue an impressive progression in the frontcourt, center Mouphtaou Yarou has to demand more minutes with his defense, and the Wildcats have to scratch off a few more items on the checklist.
At the top of the list, however, is finding the every-night tenacity that has made some of the previous teams special. Villanova had that as it trapped Georgetown during the frantic final three minutes on Saturday. Now, the Wildcats just have to work on the first 37.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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